American takeover leads to punch-up

October 29, 1999

BARCELONA. Friction between the owners of a Spanish private university over its sale to a United States-based international education provider has degenerated into violence on campus and ensuing legal counter-claims.

Julio Fidalgo, former president of the European University of Madrid and owner of 46 per cent of its shares, alleges he and three others were attacked by seven campus security guards wielding truncheons earlier this month.

A former lecturer at the university who is now employed by Mr Fidalgo suffered two broken ribs and is taking legal action.

A university statement, however, said Mr Fidalgo caused the incident with his "aggressive attitude" and attempts to enter the president's office by force.

The dispute began in 1997 when then part-owner Luis Velasco, together with minority shareholders, decided to sell the majority stake against Mr Fidalgo's wishes. Mr Fidalgo was ousted as president and has since received no information on how the university is being run.

In March 1999, Sylvan Learning Systems agreed to pay $26 million and take on about $31 million in debts for a 54 per cent holding in the university.

Rectors of Madrid's state universities expressed concern at Sylvan's experience of higher education, mainly in distance learning and continuing education in the US, but the education authorities approved the sale.

Mr Fidalgo claimed he came under pressure to sell his shares to Sylvan while management banned him from campus, accusing him of "unending complaints, insults and demands".

Late last month, 28 of the teaching staff were fired and a further 12 told their contracts would not be renewed. Alan Diaz, acting president of the university, said the decision reflected the need to "realign the teaching workforce to reality" because some departments had become overstaffed as the student profile changed. Some 45 new members of staff have since been taken on.

Juan Manuel Menendez, who recently lost his job as lecturer in economics at the university, said: "The real reasons are to get rid of whistleblowers or people linked to Julio Fidalgo."

Mr Menendez has reported a number of allegations of academic "irregularities" to management to no avail. These include obliging lecturers to teach course units they are not specialised in as punishment, a head of department referring to students as "thick-heads" and he himself being asked to award an A grade to the son of former owner Luis Velasco "when he was not even enrolled on the course".

But Mr Diaz said enrolments were now rising, with 18,000 new students this year compared with 15,000 in 1998, and that Sylvan intended to invest $10 million in the project over the next year.

The US group plans to invest in more private universities in southern Europe, Latin America and Asia. "Hopefully, Mr Fidalgo will soon be a mere pimple on our overall strategy to create a top-notch university network," said Mr Diaz.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.